We all love a good nosh up, so it should come as no surprise to discover that some of history’s finest writers had a taste for food writing too. Take Oscar Wilde. The man renowned for his rapier-sharp wit famously wrote in A Woman of No Importance “After a good dinner one can forgive anybody, even one’s own relations.” Sadly, Oscar’s dalliance with food never went further than a few lines. However, there are some other literary greats who put a whole lot more effort into showcasing their culinary passions.
1. Alexandre Dumas
Most well-known for his literary creations The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers amongst a voluminous legacy of work, Alexandre Dumas was also a cook and a gourmet, and wrote Dictionnaire de Cuisine, published posthumously in 1873, a compendium of French dining habits through history. The volume was unabashedly inaccurate; Dumas took care to include unbelievable food tales such as the fact that the Romans drove ducks across the Alps for their dinner, and that people in the Caribbean fed exclusively on crab.
In a letter to a friend, Dumas wrote, “It is my habit each week to dine at restaurants three times, take dinner at the homes of friends twice, dine alone at home once, and to entertain five or six at home every Tuesday.” He was noted for the salads he served. The Alexandre Dumas potato salad recipe is revived in the James Beard cookbook and is surprisingly easy to make.
2. Sylvia Plath
Sylvia Plath, author of The Bell Jar, the American poet best known for her confessional poetry, a woman whose dark, pathos-ridden poems seemed ultimately overshadowed by her awful choice of death via an oven, was quoted, ironically, as having exclaimed, “How I love to cook!” Baking was especially therapeutic to her, and some of her recipes still ghost the web, such as tomato soup cake or lemon pudding cake.
She also loved reading cookbooks, and particularly enjoyed Irma Rombauer’s The Joy of Cooking, considered practically a bible in culinary echelons, even as she struggled with the inherent tensions between domesticity and the literary life — in her words, “a life of oppositions, balancing children, sonnets, life and dirty dishes…” Her first essay, sold to The Christian Science Monitor, was entitled, “Kitchen of the Fig Tree” and recalled the three kitchens she had cooked in since her marriage: Spain, Cambridge and then Boston. Interestingly, what she spent the most time describing in the essay wasn’t the food she made there, but the views from all three kitchens and her gaze outward, not in.
3. Ernest Hemingway
A Moveable Feast enters every food writer’s lexicon shortly upon the budding of culinary interest, and Papa’s recipe for pan-fried hamburgers is ubiquitous, having been written up in Saveur, The Paris Review, Esquire, just to name a few. The recipe had over a dozen ingredients and included Mei Yen powder, apparently otherwise known as MSG! His recipe for bacon-wrapped trout is a must-try for camping and fly-fishing aficionados. Similar to his sparse writing style, his way of fly-fishing was also simple and rustic. He caught grasshoppers with his bare hands as bait and kept them in a bottle strung around his neck.
A Moveable Feast is not only entertaining for his saturnine anecdotes about Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ford Maddox Ford, among others, but also for its glimpse into young Hemingway at 25, a starving artist. He wrote about hunger in Paris, when one’s walk was always filled with the smells emanating from a good bakery. Hunger seemed omnipresent, and the artist in him, rather than be undone by it, cultivated it as good discipline (“all the paintings in the Luxembourg museum were sharpened and clearer and more beautiful if you were belly-empty, hollow-hungry”).
4. Isabel Allende
We know her best for her magical realist Stories of Eva Luna and The House of the Spirits, but this Chilean-American writer also wrote Aphrodite, “a feast of fascinating facts about the aphrodisiac powers of food and love.” A quick browse-through reveals that it catalogues all manner of aphrodisiacs — from stingrays to cow’s udders, mushrooms to a cornucopia of spices, and contains a treasure trove of recipes. I have actually made the recipe for gazpacho from Allende’s recipe and can vouch for its goodness.
What does Allende like to cook at home? According to Aphrodite, if she were to host an orgy, Allende would offer guests “platters of raw and cooked shellfish, meat, game birds, and cold fish, salads, sweets and fruits — especially grapes…” A recipe for curanto is conveniently offered to aid any such bacchanalistic endeavours.
5. Nikolai Gogol
The author of Dead Souls paid a lot of attention and detail to food, given the copious reference to it in his work. From his private correspondence and accounts by his contemporaries, it was known that he loved to eat, often ordering another meal right after finishing one. He also loved to cook. In Italy, he learned to make Italian-style macaroni. He was said to churn his own butter, and loved concoctions with rich dairy products, his favourite being boiled goat’s milk with rum. Paradoxically, Gogol was plagued by severe digestive problems all his life and not surprisingly, manifestations of intestinal discomfort likewise affect a number of characters in Dead Souls, usually after a surfeit of eating. Even Nabokov had commented on the ‘curiously physical side of his genius — the belly is the belle of his stories, the nose is their beau.” Again, perhaps karmic given Gogol’s appetite for food, but when he died, doctors discovered that his stomach was so shrunken they could feel his backbone, and seven leeches resided in his nasal passage (the nose so linked to the sense of smell and taste, and the title of one of his short stories).
5 1/2. David Foster Wallace
“Consider the Lobster” is the motherlode of food essays. Assigned to cover the Maine Lobster Festival (MLF, for short) as a subject, DFW describes the spectacle of lobster dishes and lobster-connected gewgaws and products on offer with a barely-veiled caustic eye. From it, you learn that lobsters are basically ‘sea-bugs’ and that in the 1800s, lobsters were considered low-class food, so much so that feeding lobsters more than once a week to prisoners was considered ‘cruel and unusual’. The lobster, now though, is a ‘luxe’ dining item. The MLF seeks to democratise the lobster, and humorously, DFW’s anaerobic list of ‘petty inconveniences’ at the MLF feels like an insinuated commentary on the indignities of proletarianism itself.
Foodies and food-bloggers everywhere like to cite DFW’s famous essay, “Consider the Lobster”, written for and first published in Gourmet magazine. However, given that the essay left in no doubt that Wallace believed lobsters felt pain when they were being boiled, and in which he raised a whole host of uncomfortable questions surrounding the morality of food, and the way we kill for food, this ought to give foodies more than just pause.
Did DFW like to cook? Did he cook? I don’t know and I suspect not, given that he died so young and spent most of his life drinking to excess while severely depressed. But his philosophical voice — in “Consider the Lobster” and other essays — is nonpareil — if the man had lived, he could pick any topic — from porn-stars (which he did) to mistletoe — and I’d follow him there.
*In the interests of providing a diverse range of authors, covering historical to contemporary, men and women of different nationalities, I’ve left out — with a heavy heart — Truman Capote, Oscar Wilde, John Steinbeck, Gunter Grass, Emile Zola and Willa Cather, so for those interested in more food tales surrounding these famous writers, please check out the “Food and Literature” blogposts at cookedupfiction.org
Elaine Chiew is a writer and the editor of Cooked Up: Food Fiction From Around the World. Her short stories have won and been shortlisted for numerous prizes including the 2008 Bridport Prize and 2010 Camera Obscura’s Bridge- the-Gap competition. They have also appeared in many publications, including One World: A Global Anthology and Short Circuit: Guide to the Art of the Short Story. She blogs about food and fiction at Redemption in the kitchen.